PERFUMERY AND THE PLAGUE
The so-called Dark Ages saw a time when filth and stench were part of daily life in Europe, whether in town or country. Lack of effective sanitation or plumbing, coupled with rising urban populations, inadequate nutrition resulting from insufficient food supplies, and low morale brought about by a corrupt feudal system, eventually led to conditions within which the Black Plague could flourish. By the Middle Ages, outbreaks were common, including the one in 1348 which decimated a large portion of the population of Europe. Neither cleanliness nor perfumes entered the daily regime of the typical citizenoddly enough, it was thought that bathing would actually increase one's risk of disease, by opening the pores and letting in poisoned air! We do know, however, that those who worked in perfume factories and apothecaries which dispensed fragrant materials were rarely struck with plague. The volatile essential oils present in many perfumes offered one of the best forms of disinfectionthe "plague doctors" of the time wore hoods fitted with large "beaks" which were filled with various herbs, spices and oils. Though dubious methods were often employed to "cure" plague, the crude understanding that "poisoned vapors" were a partial cause led to the use of fragrant materials to cleanse the air and eliminate what was thought to be "the stench of pestilence" (from Annick Le Guerer's Scent).
Due to its high rate of communicability, even the wealthy living in relatively clean surroundings were at risk for contracting the plague. Elizabeth I, fond of attending plays and public performances, wore perfumed gloves of Spanish leather (itself cured with ambergris, rosewater, sugar and spices), and carried a pomander on her person to repel the plague. The name "pomander" comes from "pomme" meaning apple, and "ambre" or ambergristhis curious item refers to an orange or apple studded with cloves and rolled in ambergris, cinnamon, and various herbs and spices. It was then carried in the pocket, worn upon a lapel or belt, or stored in a drawer or cupboard as a sachet. It was commonly offered as a gift at the Christmas season. Once they grew popular after the Middle Ages, and their reputation as a plague repellent was known, pomanders were often fashioned out of silver or gold, encrusted with jewels, and then their hollow interiors filled with herbs and spices. The Facultè de Paris offered this recipe: "Take a very pure gem of two ounces; storax, calamite, gum Arabic, myrrh, incense, aloes, of each three gross; sandalwood, musk, two gross; nutmeg, cloves and mace, of each a gross; bennut, the upper and lower shells of a Byzantine oyster, karabè, aromatic calamus, the seed of basil, marjoram, savory, dried mint, gillyflower root, of each substance half a gross; aloe wood, a half ounce; ambergris, one ounce; musk, one and a half gross; camphor, a half scruple; oil of spikenard, oil of muscatel, enough to give fragrance; add a small piece of white wax."
The Facultè de Paris also recommended this poetic combination for fumigating households against plague in summer: "cold aromatics like roses, sandalwood, nenuphar, vinegar, rose-water, camphor lozenges that comfort the heart, and chilled apples," and in winter, "hot aromatics like aloe wood, amber or sweet gum (author's note: probably gum mastic), nutmeg and pomander." Since so many of these ingredients were expensive, the poorer classes employed less costly perfumes such as storax, frankincense, marjoram, and rosemarythe poorest were advised merely to pray to God. The protective use of scents to guard against plague slowly evolved into a more socially complex utilization of perfumes throughout Europe.
Later, 17th and 18th century European men and women exhibited an obsession markedly similar to the Egyptians, drenching their clothing, wigs and bodies with scent. However, they still shunned bathing, believing that the opening of the pores that resulted from immersion in hot water was harmful to the health, and would allow plague or other diseases to enter the body. People would cleanse their faces and hands with scented lotions and powders, and doctors who worked with plague victims would usually sponge their bodies with lukewarm vinegar at the end of the day, in addition to inhaling aromatic substances as they worked, to prevent plague from entering through the breathing passages. In imitation, the leisure classes would carry pomanders and sniff them periodically. Often, costly imported items like ambergris, civet and musk (harvested from unsuspecting sperm whales, civet cats and Oriental musk deer), as well as floral waters of rose, lavender and orange blossom, were used in huge amounts by dandyish men and status-conscious women, who employed perfumes as calling cards and evidence of wealth and class . Their lavish use of scents, in addition to being a sensual indulgence, provided a kind of substitute for proper hygiene. Perfumes covered the smell of body odor caused by not bathing, and masked foul breath resulting from rotting teeth and gums, and also offered some protection against infectious disease, including the plague.
From "The Plague Years," a chapter from a book-in-progress on the history of perfumery
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